Maximising the Use of Structural Engineering Software: 7 Best Practices

This article highlights how to get the most out of your engineering software, for increased efficiency, accuracy and productivity in seven easy steps

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With the advent of modern computers, structural engineering software has evolved into an essential tool for most structural engineers. These sophisticated programs offer powerful capabilities that allow structural engineers to perform complex calculations, simulate various scenarios, and visualize their designs in three dimensions. Projects that could take weeks possibly months to analyse and design in the past can now be modelled, analysed and designed completely in a matter of hours by pressing the buttons on a computer.  Leveraging on structural engineering software tools, have allowed engineers to reduce errors, improve efficiency, and deliver higher-quality projects.  The benefits of using structural engineering software are not just limited to the design phase; they extend throughout the entire project lifecycle, including planning, analysis, and construction.

However, to truly harness the full potential of structural engineering software, engineers must go beyond mere familiarity with its basic functions. It is not enough to just understand how to navigate the software or use its primary features. Engineers need to understand the functionalities, capabilities and limitations that these tools offer. There’s a deeper level of engagement an excellent engineering software user must have with their software of choice. This deeper engagement with the software not only enhances the quality of their work but also contributes to their professional growth and expertise.

It’s also easy to feel intimidated by impressive projects and discussions about fully autonomous structural design tools. However, it’s crucial to remember that traditional engineering judgment and expertise remain at the heart of a structural engineering design office.  Structural design focuses on people, processes, and traditional engineering judgment, not the software.

Let’s explore seven actionable strategies that can be applied by a structural engineering software user towards maximizing the use of software.

Clarify Your Goals for Using the Software

A common question that mostly appear on the internet and blogs by potential structural engineering software users is ‘what engineering software is the best?’ This question often comes from a place of trying to find a software that is able to do everything – a ‘one size fits all’ software. This software simply does not exist. So, most answers given to this question end up being subjective and a mere opinion expressed by whoever is answering the question. And most times these opinions are based on the goals the engineering user has for using the software.

See: Selecting the Right Structural Engineering Software Package

To maximize the use of engineering software, you must have a clear-cut goal or set of goals. It is these set of goals that guides you into making the requisite decision on what software to invest in.  Avoid the temptation of investing in tools with features far beyond your current or future needs. Evaluate the specific information you want to extract from the software and choose a tool that meets those requirements. There’s no need investing in a software that does bridge design if your current and future needs only require a software that does building design. Don’t spend money on functionality you won’t use. It is pointless!

Determine What is Required to Complete Your Design.

In selecting a software and by extension maximizing the use of the software, the engineer must understand what is expected to be delivered by them. For instance, are the deliverables expected to be presented in the form of a report or in the form of a drawing. What and how many types of analysis and design is to be conducted?

If you have BIM deliverables, it’s crucial to know the content and format needed to meet your obligations. Similarly, for projects needing further design development, cloud-based collaborative tools can be more beneficial for the team. Choose tools that fit the task and don’t hesitate to explore new options.

An in depth understanding of what your design requires and what is to be delivered allows you to maximize the use of your software.

Master The Art of Computational Thinking

Computational thinking isn’t limited to programmers or computer scientists; it’s a problem-solving approach that anyone can adopt. It involves breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. By doing so, you can analyze each component individually and then link them together in various ways to address different project needs.  For instance, in the design of steel frame, thinking computationally involves breaking down the design for instance into member verification which is typically required to be carried out first and then the design of the steel connections.

Thinking computationally allows for flexibility and adaptability across a wide range of projects, regardless of their complexity or scope. Dissecting the design process into distinct tasks or processes, allows an engineer to establish a structured workflow. This structured approach not only enhances efficiency but also facilitates the planning of quality assurance (QA) procedures. Each step in the workflow can be carefully evaluated and refined, ensuring that the final outcome meets the desired standards and objectives. What is more?  By implementing computational thinking principles, you can optimize the workflow to streamline the design process and minimize errors or inefficiencies.

Build a Strong and Reliable Workflow

In other to maximize the use of an engineering software, you must construct a workflow that facilitates easy examination, auditing, and verification. Developing a workflow is like creating a checklist. This allows you to easily identify necessary tasks, proceed to connect these tasks, outline the flow of information, and align software tools with the process.

Assessing most software outputs can pose challenges. However, results can’t just be accepted at face value hence “sanity checks” is crucial to ensure the reliability and robustness of details. Thus, establishing a workflow enables you to incorporate these checks into your design process, ensuring everything remains on course.

Furthermore, it’s always vital to communicate this workflow effectively within your office environment. Collaboration is smoother when everyone operates in harmony and comprehending the flow of information aids in better integration of your work with other disciplines.

Explore ‘quick wins’

Structural engineering is inherently intricate, and it’s common to encounter situations where ready-made solutions are unavailable for your specific requirements. Instead, consider exploring quick and straightforward methods to automate certain tasks. For instance, you might develop a spreadsheet that determines different bearing resistance of piles in a group against expected settlement. Or, you could write a piece of code to generate schedules for generating bar bending schedules from structural drawing, or to select return beam end forces in a steel frame for steel connections design.

This small enhancement can accelerate the design process and are typically straightforward to assess. Furthermore, they may be integrated into more comprehensive solutions in the future. By automating tedious or time-consuming tasks, you can free up valuable time to address larger issues and challenges within the design process.

Stay Updated with Training and Webinars

The world of structural engineering software is constantly evolving, with new features and updates released regularly. Stay abreast of these changes by attending webinars, training sessions, and user conferences. Many software companies offer free resources to help users stay current. Networking with other professionals can also provide valuable insights and tips.

In same vain, when you encounter a roadblock, don’t hesitate to seek help from others. User communities and forums are excellent resources for troubleshooting and learning new tricks. Chances are, someone else has faced—and solved—the same issue you’re dealing with. These communities offer support, share experiences, and provide solutions that might not be available in the user manual

Don’t be Drawn in

Finally, Software marketing is essentially marketing. Structural engineering software websites are laced with buzz words such as ‘powerful structural analysis software,’ ‘advanced FEA software.’ Make no mistake. Most of this software basically does the exact same thing, with the only difference being in the words the software developer has chosen to market their product.

Do not be drawn in by words but substance. And this goes back to the first point in this article, that is, the need to have a well-defined need for an engineering software. Where your goals have been set and your needs are well defined, the temptation to get drawn in reduces.  

Another strategy to avoid getting drawn in, is to allocate time to thoroughly explore a software product, testing its functionalities, comprehending its strengths, and pinpointing its limitations before deciding to buy it.  Do not hesitate in questioning vendors about how specific features operate; they are usually willing to provide clarifications. If necessary, request an extended trial period.

Bonus Tip: Experiment and Innovate

Do not be afraid to experiment. Try out different features, push the software’s limits, and explore unconventional solutions. Structural engineering is as much an art as it is a science and Innovation often stems from those willing to think outside the box and explore new possibilities.

Also See: Top 10 Structural Engineering Software of 2023


In conclusion, to maximize the use of a structural engineering software is to recognize why you need to use the software in the first place and what your deliverables are. This then allows you to think computationally and build a workflow around the software. And you can then explore some quick wins and stay updated with trainings and webinars on the software ensuring that you don’t get drawn in to another software offering not just same capability but nothing remarkably extra.

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